Something went terribly wrong in the University of Michigan Law School’s class of 1988.
For starters, over-the-top conservative pundit Ann Coulter – who has based her entire career on being as bigoted and inflammatory as possible – was part of that class. While Coulter alone probably makes administrators cringe every time someone notes that she is a University alum, another ’88 grad is quickly becoming a challenger to Coulter’s throne as the former law student who most deserves a cold shoulder when the next reunion rolls around.
That alum is Steven Bradbury, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The story of Steven Bradbury reads something like the script of “Forrest Gump” for modern conservatives. It weaves in the stories of almost all the major conservative players of the last couple of decades and all of their cronyism until it gets right to the top of the justice system – and right to the heart of one of America’s most divisive legal questions: What constitutes torture?
Overcoming the setback of losing his father as a child and growing up with only the support of a blue-collar, working mother, Bradbury was the first person in his family to go to college when he attended Stanford University as an undergraduate. As The New York Times aptly described it earlier this month, Bradbury’s early life had that “Horatio Alger element” typical in the tales of other prominent conservatives like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
After graduating from Michigan Law School, Bradbury nabbed a clerkship in 1990 with Justice James Buckley of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the brother of famous conservative writer and National Review founder William Buckley. Even more eerily, when James Buckley retired in 1996, his seat was left empty until a certain John Roberts took the spot in 2003.
But the connections don’t stop there. Bradbury clerked for Clarence Thomas in 1992. When that clerkship ended, he went on to work at Kirkland & Ellis, a private law firm that Kenneth Starr, the man who hounded former president Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, also worked for. Again, with the help of the some old friends, Bradbury next made his way into the Justice Department, when he was hired by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith in 2004 as his top deputy.
To make a long story short, Goldsmith only lasted nine months in his position after he tried to lead what the Times called “a behind-the-scenes revolt against what he considered the constitutional excesses of the legal policies embraced by his White House superiors.” More specifically, Goldsmith was appalled by the 2002 “torture memos,” which narrowly defined that torture “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”
Here is where Steven Bradbury earns his place as the University of Michigan Law School alum who most deserves to be disavowed.
When Goldsmith resigned, Bradbury took over the position in the interim under the strict watch of the White House, which was gauging his loyalty. Soon Goldsmith’s little spat of morality on the torture issue was a distant memory. According to the Times, in a series of classified 2005 opinions, Bradbury allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to begin using black sites (secret overseas prisons) and decided that none of the CIA’s interrogation methods, including waterboarding, fit the “cruel, inhuman or degrading” standard set by the Detainee Treatment Act.
Bradbury got to make all of these decisions to allow torture without ever being confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He was nominated in June 2005, but senators Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) blocked his nomination because they feared his close relationship with the White House. According to the 1998 Vacancies Reform Act, nominees that aren’t approved by the Senate are not allowed to continue in their positions for more than 210 days. Bradbury did so anyway.
So Bradbury didn’t just define torture – he may have done it illegally. Now his nomination is back on the Senate’s to-do list, and by most accounts, he is likely to be confirmed
Ann Coulter can eat her heart out (if she has one): Coming to power through the small circle of America’s elite, conservative cronies, Bradbury has done more to secretly unravel basic human rights than she has ever babbled about.
Makes you proud to be a Wolverine.
Gary Graca is an associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.